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One December back when my nephew was 3 years old, he was eager to visit my house to help decorate the Christmas tree. His focus and enthusiasm were enviable; he knew exactly what he was there to do and was satisfied that he had the right equipment to hand. An hour later, he stepped back and declared with a flourish, “that looks BEAUTIFUL!” I looked at the tree - which had no ornaments above his 3ft eyeline - and laughed to myself, committing the moment to memory but also desperate to rearrange the decorations according to my usual precise ornament-to-foliage ratio. I waited, of course, until my nephew had gone home, beaming with pride at his job well done.
I often wonder at what point the self-belief, fearlessness and sheer determination of childhood begin to wane. Even as I type, my mind is like a cutting room floor covered in ideas I dismissed on the grounds that they weren’t good enough, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. It seems to me that self-doubt lurks in our limbic systems, ready to strike when (heaven forbid!) we might dare to feel like we’re doing okay.
So how did we get here? Well, somewhere, between that carefree 3-year-old and the adults we are today, we allowed other people’s opinions, judgements, beliefs and thoughts to enter our minds and set up camp. These adopted beliefs and views form our ego – in other words the ‘I’ we identify with and the lens through which we make sense of the world around us. They are mostly unconscious and sit behind the wheel driving our lives but can manifest as self-doubt when we feel vulnerable or unsure.
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Leadership, like life, isn’t an exact science and involves trial and error, so your self-belief is critical to your ability to lead with confidence. Your people and organisation rely on you to be your best self and openly share your talents and potential with pride. You are doing nobody any favours by dimming your light! However, if you’re finding that self-doubt often rears its head, here is some practical advice you can implement and share:
1. Be curious, not competitive. Comparison, as Theodore Roosevelt said, is the thief of joy. In fact, people have falsely attributed quotes on this topic to notable people to strengthen the concept:
“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.” - not Mother Teresa
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” - someone who wasn’t Einstein
There’s no doubt that these quotes are all relevant and give us food for thought, but how do you put the theory into practice? Vala Afshar recently Tweeted, “Everyone you meet knows more about something than you do. Be curious.” To me, this not only reinforces the point that we all have different strengths and talents, but it also gives us a clear objective: be curious. Life is not a competition, so allow yourself to view each new day as a learning experience and open your eyes to the skills and knowledge others have to share with you, and vice versa.
2. Choose your words carefully. Whether it’s internal or spoken, our first-person narrative is extremely powerful. It’s often harsh and unfounded, and won’t go unnoticed by your people, so it can affect their perception of you as a leader. In addition, research suggests that negative self-talk has a detrimental effect on your body as well, so it’s far from harmless self-deprecation. Negative thought patterns won’t go away on their own, but with effort and persistence you can quieten the noise they create. A technique used in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is to identify the negative thought, categorise it (are you labelling, generalising, catastrophising etc.) and ask yourself how much you truly believe it. Everyone can be self-effacing, so you can set a positive example by working with your people to be mindful of the language you all use when referring to yourselves.
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3. Shift your perspective. Sometimes when we doubt ourselves, it helps to go back to basics. Remember why you do what you do - what drew you to it? Or think back to a time when you didn’t know things you know now; the evidence that you are succeeding is always there, but sometimes you have to make the conscious effort to look for it. Don’t be fooled by the idea that other people don’t have their own self-doubt, either; confident people simply learn to work with it rather than fight against it. Instead of telling yourself, “I’m not good at this” you can turn the situation around by saying, “I am going to learn and I will get better.” – the situation hasn’t changed, but by adjusting your perspective you can transform your attitude.
4. Done is better than perfect. As a leader, you may feel self-imposed pressure to demonstrate that you are the expert in a particular area, or that you can carry out a task to perfection. However, this mindset can be damaging to your mental health, particularly if you fall victim to procrastination because you believe that only perfect will do. Psychologist Carol Dweck, whose research focuses upon fixed vs growth mindsets, asks, “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? … The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.” So be present, stick with it and get it done.
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5. Be your own champion. Children are given gold stars as praise and motivation, perhaps because each new thing they learn is a step towards independence, but as working adults it’s expected, naturally, that we are independent of thought and can motivate ourselves. Praise is welcome but not guaranteed, and expecting it for each job well done is a slippery slope towards disappointment. Dweck believes that the real key to satisfaction is effort, noting “Effort is one of those things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it.” Therefore, instead of looking to others for validation or praise, as a leader you can set the example of reflecting on each completed task by asking yourself whether you gave it your all and what you learned from it.
The fact is, it’s perfectly normal to doubt yourself. There is, however, a fine line between the kind of self-doubt that keeps you grounded and the kind that consumes you. The energy taken up by the latter can be better spent re-framing your thoughts and choosing to have faith in yourself. In the words of Stephen Bartlett, “You wouldn't plant a seed and then dig it up every few minutes to see if it has grown. So why do you keep questioning yourself, your hard work and your decisions? Have patience, stop overthinking and keep watering your seeds.” Alternatively, if I’ve inspired you to reconnect with your inner child, think of Dory in Finding Nemo and “Just keep swimming!”